There were more than 2,000 known cases of people living with HIV/AIDS in San Diego last year, but experts fear the number of HIV-positive people is significantly higher. Stigma, funding cuts and a lack of information on testing leave many people undiagnosed.

To raise awareness about how best to tackle these problems with new evidence-based approaches of mobilizing families to prevent and adapt to the problems posed by HIV/AIDS, APA co-sponsored an HIV Community Day Conference on Aug. 11 in San Diego, the day before the association’s 2010 Annual Convention. Front-line providers, prevention scientists, and community leaders gathered to discuss ways of transferring evidence-based family prevention programs to curb the spread of the disease in San Diego. The event focused on establishing collaborative partnerships among family-oriented researchers, HIV prevention service providers and leaders from affected communities in the local area.

“In recent years, researchers and health professionals have increasingly recognized the importance of the family in health promotion and disease prevention,” said John R. Anderson, PhD, senior director of APA’s Office on AIDS. “The family is on the front line.”

In addition to APA, the event was sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health and various organizations from the San Diego community, including the HIV Neurobehavioral Research Center at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), Christie’s Place, Jewish Family Service of San Diego, County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency, and the UCSD Mother, Child and Adolescent HIV Program.

Welcoming participants, APA President Carol D. Goodheart, EdD, remarked that in many ways, “the HIV/AIDS Community Day Conference represents the best of APA and psychology because it is all about the practical application of psychological science for the benefit of community health.”

Conference sessions and workshops involving both national and local experts addressed numerous local problems associated with HIV testing, adherence to medication regimens, prevention efforts in border communities and stigma.

The problem of stigma is especially important among gay men, who have the highest infection rates in the area, said Terry Cunningham, chief of the HIV, Sexually Transmitted Disease and Hepatitis Branch of Public Health Services in San Diego. He underscored the important role family can play in helping men get tested and treated. “When the family unit is receptive to an individual’s lifestyle, that individual is more likely to be educated about what they need to do as far as HIV prevention is concerned,” said Cunningham. “When a person feels shame about who they are, they become much less likely to involve their loved ones.”

But HIV testing and treatment are important for all citizens, because infection rates have increased among straight people, who may not feel comfortable taking advantage of services targeted toward gays, Cunningham said. Getting that message out will be difficult, since San Diego’s testing and treatment funding has been cut by two-thirds in the last year, he said.

Families play an important role in the fight against HIV/AIDS in San Diego, but they can’t win the battle alone, said conference presenter Marguerita Lightfoot, PhD, an associate professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. Churches can also serve a critical role in spreading the word, especially in the case of African-Americans, she said.

“Many African Americans often don’t believe they are at risk because we haven’t targeted our message appropriately,” said Lightfoot, despite the fact that blacks account for more than half of all new HIV/AIDS cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To address these issues, Lightfoot recommended cultural sensitivity training for health-care workers, teaching them to reach out to populations in a culturally competent way.

Lightfoot wants to encourage collaboration between health-care providers and local churches, which can sponsor community health fairs. In addition, clergy can stress the importance of HIV testing through leadership and church ministries, Lightfoot said.

Though the San Diego community faces many barriers in its quest to improve HIV/AIDS education, prevention and treatment, the conference gave attendees a sense of hope and renewed energy, attendees said.

“This conference provided a relaxed and inclusive forum for exchanging ideas about how San Diego can engage its families in the fight against HIV/AIDS,” said Anderson. “Hopefully, this exchange will go a long way to building new family-based approaches to curbing the spread of the disease.”